University City

The classroom can also be a veggie patch

Your grandparents might remember when children left the farm for several hours a day to learn how things work in the world beyond their rows of corn and tobacco.

Today, schools across Mecklenburg are digging up plots of dirt for patches of tomatoes, peppers, melons and a flourish of summer flowers.

At least 31 school gardens are expected to be in production this year, a success story for parents, teachers and local groups pushing to give students hands-on learning in their schoolyards.

Watering the thirsty plants and comparing their strikingly different forms and fruits could help children latch onto agricultural traditions that have all but disappeared from many urban areas.

Many of the children and some of the adults who work alongside them to support school gardens are seeing for the first time where food comes from.

"We get to water the plants," said Julia Rojas, 9, a student at Winterfield Elementary School in east Charlotte who said caring for the plants during the summer break gave her something to look forward to. "We can gather tomatoes and melons."

Mecklenburg County is letting children get their hands dirty through a variety of partnerships.

Some efforts are organized by parents. More schools are taking advantage of grants from agencies interested in lowering obesity rates and encouraging better nutrition.

The garden that sits across the street from Winterfield is cared for by students at the school and residents who live nearby.

Nonprofit Slow Food Charlotte also is working with schools and other groups as a way to create more local food sources. Food harvested close to the land where it grows can be more nutritious and helps reduce fuel use.

The Mecklenburg County Health Department supported 10 school garden programs last year in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and expects to add five this year.

"There's a lot of movement and momentum in terms of helping schools be healthier," said Allison Mignery of the Health Department's Fruit & Vegetable Coalition. "It's easier to get people to help bring fresh food access to the school in terms of a school garden than it is to change the federal policies around the school lunch program."

Through the Fuel Pizza Café Field to Fork program, the Fruit & Vegetable Coalition and other sponsors create pizza gardens at elementary schools.

Children grow the ingredients to put on top of pizza as they learn about gardening, nutrition and healthy cooking.

After the harvest, they take a field trip to a Fuel Pizza Café to make vegetable pizza.

By all indications, still more programs for connecting school children with healthy, community-based local food appear to be budding.

N.C. Cooperative Extension master gardeners in Mecklenburg and its 4-H agent have special interest in programs for economically fragile communities that are considered food deserts, or neighborhoods without stores where fresh food is available.

With their support, five raised beds and plants - all donated by Lowe's home improvement store - are scheduled to be installed at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in north Charlotte before school opens.

About 25 students have signed up to be a part of the garden project, said Moses Harper, a behavior modification technician who came up with the idea.

Harper believes the garden will be a place where he can teach students with a variety of abilities to work together and resolve conflicts as they work toward a common goal.

He hopes the school garden will one day become a community garden cared for by students and the school's neighbors.

"I wanted to make sure our kids have an opportunity to plant a seed and see things grow," Harper said. "They were so excited about it. In the area where we work, a lot of kids never, ever see a garden."